Johannesburg. Our crazy old town certainly enjoys defying some of the traditional big-city expectations: It’s a major city nowhere near any body of water. It boasts the largest urban manmade forest in the world. It’s not even the capital of the country.

But surely, you say, the pace is fast, as behoves a big city? Not even always. Because of the high altitude, boiling an egg takes one whole minute longer on the Highveld than it does on the coast, smarmy Durbanites and Capetonians might brag.

And yet, like other successful big cities, since a couple of gold prospectors found their Big Bang in 1886, the city has continued expanding almost as constantly and rapidly as our universe has.

Fourways got its name from a humble intersection, which was about as far out of town as a true Joburger could imagine travelling, a few decades ago.

Take Fourways, for example...

The officially demarcated suburb of Fourways is relatively small, but in common parlance, the greater Fourways area includes several suburbs and is broadly referred to as the area between Randburg to the west and Bryanston to the east and south. The luxury housing estates of Dainfern and Steyn City are sommer included in the descriptor too.

Back in the way-back (okay, the 1970s), there was a four-way stop at the intersection of William Nicol Drive and Witkoppen Road – and the area got its name from that humble intersection, which was about as far out of town as a true Joburger could imagine travelling, a few decades ago.

Take a minute to let that sink in. Today William Nicol cuts under Witkoppen, and the N1 and Cedar Road are two hugely busy traffic hubs. Fourways traffic is legendary now – and not in a good way.

Urban sprawl

Nowadays Fourways is serviced by its own airport (Lanseria) and hospital (Life Fourways), schools and malls aplenty. In fact, Fourways is the fastest-growing residential and commercial geographical area in South Africa. So says the Accelerate Property Fund, and they should know: they’re the guys rebuilding the Fourways Mall. When the building is finished (projected to be this year), Accelerate says the mall will have tripled in size to 178 000m² (and, ahem, be larger than Sandton City’s 128 000m², if size matters…)

According to Dirk Prinsloo, director at property research company Urban Studies, “The Fourways Mall (the largest in sub-Saharan Africa) will act as a catalyst for additional urban growth. This is further underpinned by infrastructure development linked to road access and public transport, much of it funded by investors such as Accelerate Property Fund and Steyn City Properties.”

Artist impressions, Amorphous Artist impressions, Amorphous Frances Steyn Frances Steyn Adam Houghton, Adam Houghton Photography Frances Steyn Adam Houghton, Adam Houghton Photography Adam Houghton, Adam Houghton Photography

Accelerate Property Fund says it and and its developers funded the R300 million widening of Witkoppen Road, as well as the new flyovers from this road into Fourways Mall, and an additional flyover from William Nicol into expanded parkades, while Steyn City’s investment into infrastructure includes upgrades to the R511, William Nicol and Cedar roads, as well as sewage and water reticulation in excess of R1 billion.

Prinsloo says the Gautrain Management Agency has announced planned Gautrain route line extensions, adding stations at Brightwater Commons, “then on towards Honeydew and Fourways, up through Sunninghill and Waterfall and the western side of Midrand, adding an intersection at Samrand with a changeover station.” This will change the urban environment, although “a Fourways station will have a net outflow in the mornings and a net inflow in the evenings,” according to Prinsloo, because “the office market in Fourways is minuscule relative to Sandton, Rosebank or the Johannesburg CBD”.

There’s not much more, and certainly no detailed, talk of pedestrianisation, bicycling or public transport development to address the issues of traffic calming around Fourways. In high-density areas of Johannesburg such as the Sandton CBD and Rosebank, Melrose, Newtown, Braamfontein and the inner city, those measures are at least on the table, and implemented to greater or lesser extents. Other than a dearth of offices, what makes Fourways different?

A solution: a new way of living

At least in part, the answer lies in the trend towards so-called estate living: the tendency to enclose a large tract of land with a wall, add an access-controlled security checkpoint, and move much of the resultant mini-community’s services inside the “dome”. Restaurants, hairdressers, clubhouses, gyms, tennis courts, golf courses, shops, playgrounds and parks are part of the deal, vastly reducing inhabitants’ need to leave the estate. Add to that the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s enabling of work-from-home lifestyles, and you might check out any time you like, but you need never leave!

Big cities are fragmented, being too large to hold a homogenous community. Smaller villages allow a subculture to spring up. Social scientists such as Robin Dunbar and Richard Sosis have written in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior about the optimal size of human communities. “Although humans are capable of living in structurally diverse societies, our communities have a distinctive layered structure with successive cumulative layer sizes of 15, 50, 150, 500 and 1 500. [They] appear as natural community sizes in hunter-gatherer societies. These values reappear in both offline and online egocentric social networks. The sizes of residential campsites in contemporary Germany also adhere to these values.”

Interestingly, according to the 2011 census, Dainfern has 6 600 inhabitants, spread into 14 sub-communities they call “villages” – of about 500 people each.

Estate agent Eurydice Stanton of Vartrust Real Estate says, “Dainfern was laid out in the early 1990s around the Fourways Golf Course. This proved popular and is a model that has been replicated around the country. Before long younger families sought homes there. Larger residences were built to accommodate families, but town planning regulations have since developed to compel a range of housing opportunities within a single estate, so that smaller, more affordable units are also provided. Eagle Trace Estate and Steyn City are other residential developments in which a variety of housing options are provided.”

There are other advantages of estate living, of course. For those seeking a lock-up-and-go lifestyle, or for those working long hours, not being responsible for groundskeeping and maintenance is a huge plus.

Security is a major one for wealthy residents in a high-crime city in a country characterised by wildly disjointed levels of income. According to Stanton, being in a security estate increases the value of a home by 30% and helps it hold its value. “A vacant residential stand in a secure estate would command a price 100 to 150% higher than one of a similar size in a traditional suburb, even a suburb with road closures,” she says.

Accelerate Property Fund says the average house in Fourways sells for R2.2m, and apartments average out at R1.5m, quoting property market research from Property24.com. The area attracts younger homeowners. The group aged 36 to 49 makes up more than 46% of recent buyers, according to Accelerate, that adds that only 4.1% of buyers in the area are older than 65.

Adds Stanton, “Several smaller, higher-density sectional title developments have also recently been built alongside Dainfern Golf Estate, Dainfern Ridge, Dainfern Valley and Helderfontein Estate, offering affordable homes in secure estates in this area as well.”

Sociologically, mixed-income groups living in the same communities is good for a city, allowing richer and poorer to benefit from the same services and allowing for urban revitalisation. Whether this happens in an enclosed estate is a moot point, with some architects worried about the social costs of spatial fragmentation.

Undoing apartheid town planning may be better served with fewer walls – not just in Fourways, but all over our battalioned and barricaded city. For now, however, such a vision remains a pipe dream.

A word on Montecasino

Some say everything in Johannesburg is a facsimile of somewhere else. It is a chimera city, made up of the DNA of every style and time of architecture you can imagine – and some you can’t, all the way back to the Iron Age settlers whose remains we know exist in the Melville Koppies.

But perhaps nowhere has the imitation been as intentional and on as grand a scale as the faux-Tuscan village (but actually a casino and entertainment complex) of Montecasino.

Or at least, nowhere but Las Vegas in the USA, the original architectural copycat, where fake Eiffel towers and ersatz pyramids have turned a nowhere town into a tourist mecca. Designed by architect bureaus Creative Kingdom and Bentel Abramson & Partners, Montecasino remains enduringly popular among Joziites from all corners of the city.